There are so many ‘best of’ cookbook lists around at this time of year. If you can bring yourself to read another, here’s my top 5 pick for 2019. I’ve read and cooked from them all. Only two are new publications. For me, they really stand out in this year’s barrage of books. The other three books are vintage, much-loved ones that have done more than teach me to cook. They are still continually taken down from my bookshelf and that's why they make this list.
Sardine by Alex Jackson is stuffed with ‘Simple, seasonal, southern French cooking’ recipes. It’s broken down into chapters covering the four seasons with a Grande Bouffe or two per season – a Cous-cous for summer; an autumnal grand alioli feast. There are dishes as quick and simple as Cold almond, melon & pastis soup; Roast hake, samphire & tomato salad; and buttery Fried ceps & persillade. And a more time-consuming rich, saffron-spiked Bourride; Nicoise-style porchetta; and, Beef shin, chestnuts, wet polenta & gruyere. Alex’s recipe for a classic Clafoutis is the best I’ve ever come across and his Apricot & brown butter tart is a dream – I’ve substituted both pears and prunes to successfully extend the season of this one. Check out the book’s end pages for the author’s influences and to see what a good kitchen bookshelf of southern French cooking looks like. There is little in this book that I don’t want to cook.
Published by Pavilion
Pasta Grannies by Vicky Bennison is subtitled The secrets of Italy’s best home cooks’. As the author points out, “All Italians know their grandmothers are the best cooks” partly, of course, “ because they are served food with a liberal sprinkle of adoration”. It’s the pasta-making knowledge of these Italian women who learned, in tough times, how to prepare everything from scratch and to make a few good ingredients go further through the vehicle of pasta. This book comes out of the YouTube Channel, Pasta Grannies, which has been a little addiction for many thousands of people, including me, over the past five years. The book, and the Channel, are a celebration of these previously unsung home cooks and a record of traditions in a rapidly changing food culture. There are sound, intensively tried and tested recipes for fresh pastas from the Dolomites in the north to the tip of Sicily in the south. There are portraits of no-nonsense Nonnas like Ida with her Agnolotti del Plin and Rosa with a dish of Maccheroni with salt cod and dried peppers. I can tell you Franca’s Classic lasagne with Bolognese works wonderfully, as does Vanda’s Cappellacci with Pumpkin. I think it will take me some time to get up to the speed of these Grannies but there’s plenty more to want to emulate.
Pasta Grannies by Vicky Bennison
Published by Hardie Grant Books
The Vintage (all still in print):
If you have few food traditions and virtually no learning at mother’s knee to draw on, you need a comprehensive general cookbook and a ‘Guru’ or two.
My first food book covers the general. It was a pre-loved gift, and it keeps on giving to this day. It’s a 1976 edition of The Cookery Year, a Reader’s Digest publication that has been through many editions over the years. My copy includes contributions from great writers like Derek Cooper, Margaret Costa, Jane Grigson and Katie Stewart. With chapters on ‘Buying for Quality’ and ‘Twelve Months of Recipes’, its 500+ recipes are all centred around fresh, seasonal food. The influence of this book, and these writers, on my own thinking about food is clear. I am, and always will be, an advocate for using the best ingredients (which doesn’t mean the most expensive or most travelled), in season and cooked simply. Photography is real – don’t expect 1970s kitsch here – supplemented by some lovely illustrations from artists like Denys Ovenden.
Published by Reader’s Digest
Jane Grigson is my first ‘Guru’. I could have highlighted any of her books here but as I love fruit-growing particularly, I’ve chosen her Fruit Book. The depth of Jane Grigson’s food knowledge, the breadth of her interests and the lyricism of her writing combine to make her the most readable of writers. A glance at her Acknowledgements page in this book, first published in 1982, tells you how well she informed herself in preparation for writing. It is an A-Z of fruit and, therefore, ideal for dipping into when you want to know how best to make use of, say, that punnet of sour gooseberries you’ve just acquired or that glut of ripe strawberries. The cracked spine and splattered pages of my own copy testifies to how useful I find this book. But it is more than a source of quick inspiration. Open the page at ‘Fig’ and you will be treated to two fascinating pages covering cultivation, religion, art, folklore, sexuality, poetry, medicine and opinion. Beautifully simple recipes follow, from Duck in Port Wine and Figs to Spanish Fig Ice Cream, and Mme Verdier’s Black Fig Jam.
Published by Penguin Books
And then there’s Simon Hopkinson, a guiding-light to many. Again, it’s hard to choose which of his books to single out but Roast Chicken and Other Stories, written with the help of food journalist Lindsey Bareham, is so perfectly formed that I have to go for it. Organised in chapters based on Hopkinson's favourite ingredients, the recipes are so good you just long for chapters on ingredients he hasn't covered - then you buy his follow-up book "second helpings of roast chicken". Simon Hopkinson’s food, as he says himself, is designed to please rather than to impress. He is a chef/writer with very strong opinions and there is no-one better to knock any pretentiousness out of your cooking. He will teach you to appreciate a few good ingredients, make you think about what goes with what and how to keep things simple. And his recipes always, always work. You may have to settle for a paperback copy of this one.
Roast Chicken and Other Stories
Published by Ebury Press